The London International Ska Festival, Clapham Grand Theatre, 23 April 2011

In a room full of Doc Martens, tartan-lined Harrington jackets, pork-pie hats, braces and buttoned up Fred Perrys one would be forgiven for thinking they had done a Doctor Who and ended up in 1979 Coventry at the heart of the English 2 Tone ska revival.

In fact, it was Saturday night at Clapham Grand Theatre, the third day of the London International Ska Festival.

With tickets hitting a rather pricey forty quid per day of the festival, the audience was compiled mostly of ska’s cult followers, skanking from the late hours of Saturday afternoon to the early hours of Sunday morning with live acts from across the globe.

For audience members not yet conceived during the 70s/80s height of ska’s British popularity, the evening provided an education regarding the different strands of ska. Punk met ska as The Amphetameanies represented Scotland in their tartan glory, whilst Denmark’s highly enthusiastic outfit Napoleon Solo entertained with their feel-good soul/ska effort.

Intensified took to the stage with their laid-back reggae/rocksteady-sprinkled ska. The lead singer’s casually hypnotic vocals and the band’s unfussy sound hit the perfect note with the relaxed, carefree atmosphere of the audience.

The night’s highlight was unquestionably Celtic ska band The Trojans. Gaz Mayell (the band’s originator and founder of Gaz’s Rockin Blues, London’s longest-running one-nighter club) took lead vocals and melodica duties, surrounded by a wonderfully harmonious motley crew consisting of a violinist, saxophones, trumpets, percussion, guitars, drums, a banjo and harmonica. Gaz Mayell led his band like the Pied Piper, his experience as a performer evident in his ability to command a presence on the stage without distracting attention away from the skill of his fellow musicians – a rare but admirable quality amongst lead singers.

The crowd was uncontainable as spine-chilling saxophone solos from  Rudy Jones (one of the only remaining members from the original line-up) and Miss Megumi Chan, built up to the night’s climax.

Special guest performances from the legendary trombonist Rico Rodriguez MBE, and Lynval Golding of The Specials fame treated the audience to separate versions of one of ska’s most iconic tracks, A Message To You Rudy.

The English Beat did an admirable job following The Trojans’ outstanding set, keeping the crowd skanking into the wee hours of Sunday.  The infectious Rough Rider and their jolly version of Smokey Robinson’s Tears Of A Clown proved particular crowd pleasers.

The Clapham Grand, steeped in history, was the perfect venue for the night’s trip back to ska’s heyday. A quick bus journey from the Brixton Fridge, the venue used for the first ever London International Ska Festival back in 1988, the night could have descended into a pretentious, nostalgic parade.

Instead, as one looked around at every middle aged woman in her Marks and Spencers best with a pair of Doc Martens poking out her trouser leg, or every silver-haired man still hauling on a pair of braces, one came away with the impression that these committed followers won’t let the ska scene disappear.

By Mona Tabbara

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